“Life is arranged to care for all that lives through an endless interdependent flow of energy and resources.”
After years of thinking, reading, writing, talking, teaching, feeling, and communing, that simple sentence came to me in a session I was leading about money at a nine-day intensive training in Chile. Perhaps being immersed in a cultural context that is so much closer to the collaborative, warm, community-based way of living that I am working towards – and that still hasn’t been wiped out fully there – brought this clarity. Or maybe it was the venue, built to mimic the non-linearity of nature. It came. And then the rest followed immediately.
Humans, and the invention of money in particular, have interfered with this flow in two ways: exchange and accumulation. Exchange interferes with the flow because it cuts it short: when I give to you and you immediately give back to me, those acts cancel each other out, and there is no flow from either of us into life. Accumulation interferes because it removes resources from circulation, reducing the total amount of what can flow. Together, exchange and accumulation have converted natural abundance, based on sufficiency and regeneration, into the twin horrors of artificial surplus and manufactured scarcity, where no amount of excess can quench the fear of scarcity.
The flow is diminished to the point of threatening life, as if the arteries and veins of life on earth are clogged.
Restoring the flow would invite us to take on both exchange and accumulation. We can transform exchange and increase the flow by uncoupling giving from receiving, as much as we can, so energy and resources travel further. We can free up resources from accumulation by keeping only what we need and giving away the rest in support of other needs, beyond our individual lives.
When I was done sharing all this, I felt the earth sigh with relief that we were talking about this and examining our practices. It was a bodily experience of connection with the physical nature of life that was fresh and unexpected, unprecedented in my life. I also felt the commitment of the earth to support our work in restoring collaboration and the interdependent endless flow of gifts called life.
The rest is details, and the details matter.
Genevieve Vaughan, one of the foremost advocates for the gift economy within the global north as an antidote to the destructiveness of the exchange economy, grounds her work and research in the incontrovertible reality that all of us begin our lives sustained by the unilateral giving of those who care for us. By evolutionary unfolding, we are born entirely dependent on others, “a bundle of needs”, as psychologist Alice Miller names it. Vaughan sees this relationship, primarily and not only between mothers and their offspring, as the imprint that created human bonds, the fundamental principles of gift economies, and even language.
If, when we are infants, others give to us unconditionally, just because we have needs, then we have the experience of unconditional receiving, since there is neither an expectation nor capacity for exchange. Why, then, is it so difficult for so many of us to receive without giving, even more than to give without receiving?
Biologist Humberto Maturana sheds light on one aspect of what interferes by distinguishing dependence from helplessness. “A baby,” he says, “is born in the operational trust that there is a world ready to satisfy in love and care all that he or she may require for his or her living, and is therefore not helpless.” Tragically, most of us are raised by people whose capacity for unilateral giving is compromised. This is not because there is an individual flaw. Rather, it’s a combination of cumulative individual, intergenerational, and societal trauma combined with structural arrangements that place all of our needs in the hands of one or two people, an impossible task.
Because of this, our inborn trust is shaken, and we begin to experience receiving, and by extension need itself, as helplessness. We develop an aversion to being at the mercy of others, and receiving is associated with that kind of dependence.
In addition, the unconditional giving that does happen occurs within an island or bubble surrounded by the harsh realities of competition, exchange, and scarcity. By the time we begin to be conscious enough to reflect on our experience and to notice that we are receiving, the reality of exchange as the higher form and accepted norm is all around us. We learn that we receive by giving, that we earn our keep instead of our needs being enough of a motivator for others, and that by receiving we owe something.
Reclaiming our innate capacity for receiving takes us on a journey of recognizing, accepting, and embracing our needs, and re-developing the trust that others and life itself will respond and give us what we need. It means making requests, too, so that others can actually know what we want so they can give it to us. No small task. Learning to do this while at the same time caring for others’ needs and for the overall flow of resources that will care for all is a small, individual, revolutionary act.
Although easier for many than receiving without giving, giving without receiving has its own challenges. In a world that we experience as based in scarcity, any time we give we then have less. If we insist on an exchange, so the inherited norm goes, then we can’t lose. What I see us
lose is the joy of giving, the surrender to life that giving without receiving gives us. Just look at a small child who plays with giving, and you will see why Marshall Rosenberg, original developer of Nonviolent Communication, spoke of doing things with “the joy of a little child feeding a hungry duck.” Giving is pleasurable because it connects us to life and that mysterious flow that reconstitutes it moment by moment. The pleasure is enhanced when it comes in response to a need, because, by evolutionary design, we orient towards needs as we become aware of them.
Accumulation is a strategy born of mistrust. It’s an attempt to control the flow of life to guarantee that we will have enough tomorrow and the day after. Abundance is not the same as surplus. Natural abundance has to do with sufficiency and with the extraordinary capacity of life to regenerate itself provided we don’t strip away resources faster than life can absorb. Accumulation can only lead to more accumulation, because the more we accumulate the less there is in circulation, and the harder it is to trust the natural abundance of life.
Over the course of the last 7,000 years or so, we have systematically depleted nature’s resources in our more and more desperate attempts to control life: water, fertile soil, fossil fuel, air, minerals, and now the entire biosphere.
Individually, the antidote to this craze of accumulation includes, as a core practice, restoring our capacity to know what is enough, and to release anything beyond that. This is difficult territory, because our collective and internalized fear of scarcity interferes with our ability to know what we need and to recognize the point of enoughness. The research is out now that beyond enough there is a decline in well-being, both individually and societally.
Still, releasing control and stepping into the unknown before we have restored our trust seems suicidal in what we continue to experience as a world of separation and scarcity. Even with that hurdle on the individual level, collectively it sees that finding that capacity is essential if we are to survive and support life.
The individual practice is simple and exacting, and I have described it to many, possibly even here before. It involves enumerating the resources that I have access to, and then quantifying the needs I aim to attend to using material resources. For the latter, each of us can choose how far we want to challenge ourselves in terms of our attachment to comfort and that elusive notion of security. Once I have the mapping of resources and needs, I can see if I have access to more or less than what I have agreed with myself that I need.
If it’s less, then I know I need to make requests – of myself, of others, of life – so that I can increase my access to resources. This is also where we can find our way to working with others to change social structures that systematically exclude some groups – and, to different degrees, most people – from access to resources now controlled by the few. This is one way in which knowing my needs can be a source of empowerment and energy.
If, on the other hand, I have access to more resources than are needed to sustain my life at the level that is in integrity with my vision and values, this means that I am directly responsible for a small part of the blocking of the flow of resources, and I can then correct that small part and microscopically increase the flow. My task is then to find my way towards shedding. This entails nothing less than taking on the entire weight of our modern preoccupation with stability, comfort, security, and predictability.
It means stepping into the unknown, the true nature of impermanence, beyond the incessant attention to what works for me. It means inspiring myself with the intricate interdependence of life, such as the capacity of trees, as documented in The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge, to care for the individual trees in need at any give time through a complex interconnected root system, thereby caring fully for their entire community’s capacity to thrive. It means re-orienting myself to caring for the whole, allowing resources to flow from where they are to where they are needed, like the trees. It means restoring faith in human communities to attend to all of us within the means of one finite planet. It means coming back, and forward, into trusting the mystery of how life organizes itself, in the absence of control, to care for all that lives through an endless interdependent flow of energy and resources. May we succeed while we can.
INVITATION: To discuss this and other posts with me and other readers of this blog, check in to the free Fearless Heart Teleseminars. Next dates:
Friday, December 22, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm, PT
Sunday, January 28, 2018, 10:30 am – 12:00 pm PT
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Image Credits: Top: “Baby Sleeping” by Pixabay, licensed under CC BY 2.0 Second “Boy_Feeding_White_Ducks” by Barelyhere, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Third: “GDP and Life Satisfaction: New Evidence.” GDP and Life Satisfaction: New Evidence | VOX, CEPR’s Policy Portal, voxeu.org/article/gdp-and-life-satisfaction-new-evidence. Bottom: “Into the Light” by Kasra Kyanzadeh, licensed under CC BY 2.0